Towards a maturing democracy
JULY 31 — It has been about five years since the opposition parties decided to band together under the loose coalition called Pakatan Rakyat. They have proven to be true contenders for governing the nation, providing a substantial challenge to the incumbent Barisan Nasional who have been in power since independence.
Since that fateful day in March of 2008, this country’s political landscape has undergone a startling transformation unlike anything it has seen in the past, with two political sides monopolising the game.
It’s easy to sit back and enjoy the transformation and the change it ushers, but it’s also really important for us to take a step back and analyse the boon and bane of this new landscape.
The rise of a two-party system in Malaysia has resulted in some positive changes. A more prominent (some may argue that it is also more effective) check and balance system has emerged over the past two years. The ruling government is constantly kept on its toes, adapting to this new level of scrutiny.
It has also allowed BN to develop its own ability to scrutinise, to check on the state governments controlled by PR while PR familiarises itself with the role of governance. In both cases, every move is under the microscope of the opposing side.
As with most things, there are also negative side-effects caused by this competitive political scene as it is being monopolised by two main political sides. The stakes are too high for the politicians, as they can only be the winner or the loser. This depends on their political skills and nothing else.
With no obvious differences regarding their stand on policies, the loser of this game cannot justify their loss by saying that the voters are not ready for a particular political view, for example, an environmentally friendly policy.
Instead, the losers lose because they are just not good enough in the eyes of the voters.
Therefore, the evolution towards a mature democracy seems to have been diverted towards an ugly battle for power, especially with the high-stake general election looming.
One detrimental culture developing from this political scene is the populist rewards and policies being used by both parties. With a myriad of token goodies being distributed by the ruling federal government, and smaller similar efforts been carried out by PR and BN state governments, this strategy of pampering voters is heading towards a vicious downward spiral, with no end in sight.
With both parties not willing to put on the brakes for fear of being beaten to the finish line by the other, the main loser is the future generation who will inherit a nation up to its neck in debt unless this culture changes.
Yes, the voter is also to be blamed — they give politicians the impression that these goodies (or lack off them) will indeed affect their votes. However, in this egg-chicken scenario, we need both the voters and the politician to move away from this fatal habit. However, the consequences of being the first one to end this strategy are too serious, so I don’t think it will stop anytime soon.
Another bad habit generated is the gutter politics developed not only by the politicians and their strong supporters, but also by members of the public. Many are taking their political affiliations to the next level, as seen by the horrendous Twitter and Facebook wars being raged and the unbelievable blog postings slandering the so-called enemy that have become commonplace.
I wouldn’t mind if what I read and saw were hot debates on the need for Bersih to rally or on car excise duty, but most of what I’ve come across are personal attacks on the people involved in politics. More often than not, these attacks are accompanied by copious amounts of foul language.
The country seems to give off this aura that says: “If you are not supporting the same party as me, you cannot be my friend.”
Besides, this two-party system has also inculcated the emphasis on which party wins, instead of focusing on trying to solve the problems at hand in a constructive manner. For example, the issue of crime is currently being discussed, but it is unproductive at best. The government initially tried to fend off the criticism by saying it was a matter of perception (which is laughable), but the opposition did no better as they only criticised the government without contributing ideas towards solving an issue that greatly affects Malaysian civilians.
And though our increasing interest towards healthy public debate is encouraging, we should bear in mind that this does not mean that debates are the end of any discussion. For example, the public should realise that it doesn’t matter who “won” the debate when Khairy Jamaluddin and Rafizi Ramli took to the stage to argue about free tertiary education for Malaysians.
The ultimate purpose of that debate should be to educate the public on the pros and cons of providing free education, and to illustrate the intricacies that come into play when trying to decide public policy for the nation.
All these cultures might be normal for a maturing democracy without a single dominant political party. However, it must change for the better sooner rather than later, or we risk moulding a divided Malaysia which cannot solve any issue without turning it into a personal attack.
The next general election might be too soon for us to rectify these issues, but if we cannot solve it before the 14th general election, we will be digging our own graves.
For now, I’ll put all my money on civil society as the people who are capable of playing a bigger role to help mould a more mature political scene, provided they can make some headway in being perceived as neutral and apolitical, thus targeting and reaching out to a greater number of citizens.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.
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